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‘The Hacienda’ by Lisa St Aubin de Teran ***

As with most of the books which I have been reading and reviewing of late, Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s The Hacienda was chosen for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I have read a couple of the author’s novels in the past, but have never come across any of her non-fiction before.  This particular memoir, which begins when de Teran is just seventeen years old, has been described as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘mesmerising’.

9780316816885In the 1970s, whilst still a teenager, de Teran got married to a Venezuelan man, twenty years older than herself, whom she had a whirlwind romance with in London.  She ‘followed her new husband, South American aristocrat and bank robber, Don Jaime Teran, to his hacienda, deep in the Venezuelan Andes.’  On the vast avocado and sugarcane plantation, she and Jaime live their different lives; she is left largely to fend for herself, with little knowledge of the local dialect.  Despite this, she became ‘la Dona’, spending her time ‘managing the estate, bearing her first child, handling her increasingly unstable husband, and living for seven years amongst la gente, an illiterate, feudal people’, who are tithed to the estate.  She writes of the way in which, despite her improvements of the estate for those who lived there, she was not accepted by the community until she had a child of her own, evidence of bonding ‘physically with the clan I had married into.’

As de Teran finds it, the hacienda ‘was a place without any clear dimensions: a frontierless tract of land steeped in history.  When I asked what it was, I was always told it was in the Andes, never anywhere specific, just “en los Andes”, as though this mythical hacienda were the heart, the living core of a great mountain range.’  As the months pass, de Teran feels rather overwhelmed with the many ways in which her life has changed, and the different pace of life she finds: ‘Time, it seemed, had warped on the hacienda and spun its web over all its sons and daughters.  It spun its web over me.’

De Teran makes it clear that her expectations of Venezuela were not met when she first arrived in Caracas.  She writes: ‘I suppose I was expecting everything to fit the descriptions of a sugar plantation.  The big, modern, bustling Americanised city of concrete highrises came as a total shock.  Where was the jungle?  Where were the snakes?…  I felt completely disorientated.  I began to imagine the hacienda as a place of concrete bowers wreathed in tropical flowers.  I had braced myself to live in the wilds, instead I found myself in a place obsessed by the spending and display of wealth.’

Despite the many elements of interest which can be found within the pages of The Hacienda, I did not find it anywhere near as engaging as I was expecting to.  De Teran has included many letters written to her mother throughout, which seem to have been slotted in at random, and which interrupt and take attention away from the threads of story that weave through the whole.  I found The Hacienda to be both disjointed and distanced; it felt as though de Teran was constantly keeping things at arm’s length, and distorting scenes.  The strengths within the memoir were certainly the expressions of Venezuelan customs, the sometimes colossal cultural differences which de Teran identifies, and the impacts of the country’s violent and tumultuous history.  Quite scant information is given about the social and political climate in Venezuela, however; much of the information here is focused solely upon the hacienda, with little consideration of the country as a whole.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in France

My final stop so far in 2018 is France, where I am currently enjoying the Easter holidays (thank goodness for scheduling posts ahead of time!).  Here are seven books set in France which I have loved, and which, I feel, round off the week nicely.
5894091. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (2004)
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.  When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
2. The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart (2007)
Barber Guillaume Ladoucette has always enjoyed great success in his tiny village in southwestern France, catering to the tonsorial needs of Amour-sur-Belle’s thirty-three inhabitants. But times have changed. His customers have grown older—and balder. Suddenly there is no longer a call for Guillaume’s particular services, and he is forced to make a drastic career change. Since love and companionship are necessary commodities at any age, he becomes Amour-sur-Belle’s official matchmaker and intends to unite hearts as ably as he once cut hair. But alas, Guillaume is not nearly as accomplished an agent of amour, as the disastrous results of his initial attempts amply prove, especially when it comes to arranging his own romantic future.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006) 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.   Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
4. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (2009)
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

158618055. My Life in France by Julia Child (2006)
In her own words, here is the story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her “true calling.” Filled with the black-and-white photographs that her husband Paul loved to take when he was not battling bureaucrats, as well as family snapshots, this memoir is laced with stories about the French character, particularly in the world of food, and the way of life that Julia embraced so whole-heartedly. Above all, she reveals the kind of spirit and determination, the sheer love of cooking, and the drive to share that with her fellow Americans that made her the extraordinary success she became.

6. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007; review here)
Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.
7. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) 1183167
Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950’s France with its portrayal of teenager Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and family to choose her own sexual freedom.  Cécile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

 

Which of these have you read, and which have taken your fancy?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

Germany is the third country which I have been lucky enough to visit so far this year.  My boyfriend and I travelled to beautiful Munich at the end of February.  Here are seven books set in Germany which I have loved, and would highly recommend.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) 893136
HERE IS A SMALL FACT:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.  Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:  THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.  It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.  ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
2. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.  When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
494653. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.  Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.  Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
4. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
5. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous (1953) 12238919
For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. The anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
6. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)
‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of Offshore comes this unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his fiancee Sophie, newly introduced by Candia McWilliam.The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, The Blue Flower is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.’
95455457. The End: Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (2011)
Ian Kershaw’s The End is a gripping, revelatory account of the final months of the Nazi war machine, from the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.  In almost every major war there comes a point where defeat looms for one side and its rulers cut a deal with the victors, if only in an attempt to save their own skins. In Hitler’s Germany, nothing of this kind happened: in the end the regime had to be stamped out town by town with an almost unprecedented level of brutality.  Just what made Germany keep on fighting? Why did its rulers not cut a deal to save their own skins?  And why did ordinary people continue to obey the Fuhrer’s suicidal orders, with countless Germans executing their own countrymen for desertion or defeatism?

 

Have you read any of these?  Have any made their way onto your to-read list?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Canada

I thought that I would prepare a week-long series of books which I would recommend in the countries which I have been to so far in 2018.  I have copied the official blurbs, and have also linked my review if I have written anything extensive.  I will be including seven books per destination, so as to showcase the best of the work which I have read, and not to make the posts too lengthy.  Our first stop is Canada.

331872311. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)
In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.  As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a black prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride and by the stern virtues she has inherited from her pioneer ancestors.  Vivid, evocative, moving, The Stone Angel celebrates the triumph of the spirit, and reveals Margaret Laurence at the height of her powers as a writer of extraordinary craft and profound insight into the workings of the human heart.

2. Shelter by Frances Greenslade (2011; review here)
A gorgeous, poetic literary debut from award-winning author Frances Greenslade, Shelter is a brilliant coming-of-age story of two strong, brave sisters searching for their mother.  For sisters Maggie and Jenny growing up in the Pacific mountains in the early 1970s, life felt nearly perfect. Seasons in their tiny rustic home were peppered with wilderness hikes, building shelters from pine boughs and telling stories by the fire with their doting father and beautiful, adventurous mother. But at night, Maggie—a born worrier—would count the freckles on her father’s weathered arms, listening for the peal of her mother’s laughter in the kitchen, and never stop praying to keep them all safe from harm. Then her worst fears come true: Not long after Maggie’s tenth birthday, their father is killed in a logging accident, and a few months later, their mother abruptly drops the girls at a neighbor’s house, promising to return. She never does.   With deep compassion and sparkling prose, Frances Greenslade’s mesmerizing debut takes us inside the extraordinary strength of these two girls as they are propelled from the quiet, natural freedom in which they were raised to a world they can’t begin to fathom. Even as the sisters struggle to understand how their mother could abandon them, they keep alive the hope that she is fighting her way back to the daughters who adore her and who need her so desperately.  Heartwarming and lushly imagined, Shelter celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family. It is an exquisitely written ode to sisters, mothers, daughters, and to a woman’s responsibility to herself and those she loves.

3. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) 10192871
It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.  An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?  Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

4. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (2004)
In this stunning coming-of-age novel, award-winner Miriam Toews balances grief and hope in the voice of a witty, beleaguered teenager whose family is shattered by fundamentalist Christianity.  “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing,” Nomi Nickel tells us at the beginning of A Complicated Kindness. Left alone with her sad, peculiar father, her days are spent piecing together why her mother and sister have disappeared and contemplating her inevitable career at Happy Family Farms, a chicken slaughterhouse on the outskirts of East Village. Not the East Village in New York City where Nomi would prefer to live, but an oppressive town founded by Mennonites on the cold, flat plains of Manitoba, Canada.  This darkly funny novel is the world according to the unforgettable Nomi, a bewildered and wry sixteen-year-old trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. In Nomi’s droll, refreshing voice, we’re told the story of an eccentric, loving family that falls apart as each member lands on a collision course with the only community any of them have ever known. A work of fierce humor and tragedy by a writer who has taken the American market by storm, this searing, tender, comic testament to family love will break your heart.

17735295. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1993)
The Stone Diaries is one ordinary woman’s story of her journey through life. Born in 1905, Daisy Stone Goodwill drifts through the roles of child, wife, widow, and mother, and finally into her old age. Bewildered by her inability to understand her place in her own life, Daisy attempts to find a way to tell her story within a novel that is itself about the limitations of autobiography. Her life is vivid with incident, and yet she feels a sense of powerlessness. She listens, she observes, and through sheer force of imagination she becomes a witness of her own life: her birth, her death, and the troubling missed connections she discovers between. Daisy’s struggle to find a place for herself in her own life is a paradigm of the unsettled decades of our era. A witty and compassionate anatomist of the human heart, Carol Shields has made distinctively her own that place where the domestic collides with the elemental. With irony and humor she weaves the strands of The Stone Diaries together in this, her richest and most poignant novel to date.

6. Selected Stories by Alice Munro (1985)
Spanning almost thirty years and settings that range from big cities to small towns and farmsteads of rural Canada, this magnificent collection brings together twenty-eight stories by a writer of unparalleled wit, generosity, and emotional power. In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro makes lives that seem small unfold until they are revealed to be as spacious as prairies and locates the moments of love and betrayal, desire and forgiveness, that change those lives forever. To read these stories–about a traveling salesman and his children on an impromptu journey; an abandoned woman choosing between seduction and solitude–is to succumb to the spell of a writer who enchants her readers utterly even as she restores them to their truest selves.

7. Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret 1356546Atwood (1995)
Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which ones appeal to you?

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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda’, edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks *****

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda is one of the books which I have most looked forward to reading – ever, I think. I spotted it quite by chance in Cambridge Central Library whilst I was browsing the biography section, and may have given a tiny squeal of joy before snapping it up. To add to my excitement, it is also the favourite book of one of my absolute favourite musicians, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. 9780747566014

The letters in Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda have never before been published in the same volume. The informative preface which the editors of the book, Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Bates have penned, states the way in which they have chosen to adopt a chronological approach to present the correspondence of the husband and wife. This is certainly my preferred form for letter collections and works of non-fiction, and it has been used to great effect here.

Elements of biography can be found before each letter, and it is clear that Bryer and Bates have greatly respected the material which they have presented in the volume. So much thought has been put into how the letters are presented, and each section has a nicely written introduction, which sets out the point at which the lives of the Fitzgeralds were in each particular period. Eleanor Lanahan, the granddaughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, has written the introduction to Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, and its inclusion feels so very fitting for a number of reasons. Her words are touching, and it is pleasing that she sets such stock by the work of her grandparents.

Throughout, I felt privileged to be able to read the correspondence of Scott and Zelda. Their letters to one another, even in the more troubled years of their marriage, are just darling. The prose is beautiful, the similes and metaphors gorgeous, and the spontaneity in each and every letter is marvellous. What characters both Scott and Zelda were, and how lucky we are as readers to be able to read their most private of works. I admire the way in which the editors have kept the original spellings and punctuation in the letters. The photographs and facsimiles of letters are a lovely addition to the text too.

The story of Scott and Zelda is often very sad, with Zelda being hospitalised for mental illness during the later years of her life, and Scott’s alcoholism, but their love is always there, no matter which situations they may find themselves in. Love is the enduring factor here, in all of its many forms.

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda is a fascinating collection of correspondence, which continually exemplifies the depths of Scott and Zelda’s love for one another. Many of the letters here were penned by Zelda, and she writes beautifully. Some of the sentences which she crafts are breathtaking and heartfelt, such as this, written in November 1931:

“… if you will come back I will make the jasmine bloom and all the trees come out in flower and we will eat clouds for des[s]ert[,] bathe in the foam of the rain – and I will let you play with my pistol and you can win every golf game and I will make you a new suit from a blue hydrangea bush and shoes from pecan-shells and I’ll sew you a belt from leaves like maps of the world and you can always be the one that’s perfect.”

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda comes highly recommended, and it is certainly a book which I will be purchasing my own copy of in future, so that I can read it all over again.

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‘Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia’ by Sigrid Rausing ****

I chose Sigrid Rausing’s Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I was quite looking forward to it, particularly as I have included very little non-fiction on my list.  It seemed as though it would offer something a bit different, and whilst a lot of the themes are similar to some of the other Eastern European literature which I read before it, the very fact that it is a memoir makes it all the more fascinating.

9780802122179Between 1993 and 1994, Sigrid Rausing, a Swedish anthropology student working towards her PhD at University College London, travelled to Estonia to undertake fieldwork.  She stayed in a former Soviet Union border protection zone named Noarootsi.  She met and interviewed many different people for her project.  The book’s blurb proclaims that ‘Rausing’s conversations with the local people touched on many subjects: the economic privations of post-Soviet existence; the bewildering influx of Western products; and the Swedish background of many of their people.’  In this memoir, published twenty years after her fieldwork ended, Rausing reflects upon history and political repression, and the way in which the wider world affected the individuals whom she met.

Of the aims of her PhD, Rausing writes that she wanted to explore the themes of history and memory in Estonia: ‘I was there to study the local perception and understanding of historical events in the context of the Soviet repression and the censorship of history.’  The collective farm which she stayed and worked on folded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was ‘officially closed down in February 1993, following a vote by all the members in which just one person voted for its continued existence.’  Rausing lived and worked in the village, immersing herself as much as she was able into gatherings and the like, and trying her best to learn the very difficult Estonian language.

One gets a feel for Rausing’s surroundings almost as soon as the book begins.  She writes: ‘The rest of the villages on the peninsula – bedraggled collections of grey wooden houses with thatched rooves, sometimes propped up by shoddy white brick – were like villages all over the Soviet Union at that particular time.  Forgotten places sinking into quiet poverty.’  Rausing gives many examples of the visible changes within Estonia following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and the effects which poverty and strict rule had: ‘Haapsalu was the nearest town to my prospective field site.  It had been a spick-and-span little coastal town in the 1930s, a summer spa where people came for mineral mud baths.  Now, the baths were long since gone, the paint on the beautiful wooden houses flaking and unkempt…  The main street was wide and muddy, with many shops selling few things, and almost no cars.’

The most fascinating element of Everything is Wonderful is the way in which Rausing manages to be at once a participant and an outsider in Noarootsi.  Because of her position, she is able to gather so many different perspectives on issues affecting Estonian people.  She builds a full picture of life for those villagers and townsfolk ‘forgotten’ by the wider world, often lived in poverty: ‘The people on the collective farm had little connection either with the land or with high culture.  They just got by, day by day, enduring the uncertainty, the confusion, and the quiet fear: fear of unemployment, fear of Russia, fear of the future.’  Everything is Wonderful is stark and bleak, but very human; it is at once enlightening and harrowing.  Rausing’s memoir is a fascinating and important piece of social history, told from a position of retrospect, but working from the notes which she collected whilst on her fieldwork trip.

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